Friday, June 22, 2012

South Branch WMA: a very birdy grassland walk (without the ticks)

Wrong turns uncover a lot of great surprises for us Hidden New Jersey nuts. I guess that's not surprising, as you don't go places you don't usually visit. (I'm feeling a lot like Yogi Berra right about now.)

It was a wrong turn that helped us discover a beautiful grassland birding spot in Hunterdon and Somerset Counties a couple of weekends ago. I won't bore you with the logistical details, but it involved taking 287 in the wrong direction to get to 78 and then wandering around looking for an appropriate ATM. The net was that after driving through some classic Central Jersey former farmland/present subdivision terrain, we found ourselves in open fields, some covered with crops, others laying fallow.

Grassland is in woefully short supply in New Jersey. With so many families getting out of agriculture over the past few decades, a great deal of pasture has been converted to residential use. The farms that do remain are often pushing to get the greatest productivity possible from their acreage, meaning that fewer fields lay fallow to recover after a planting year. Translated to bird talk, there's less room for grassland species to nest and feed, putting them in danger. A large percentage of the birds on the lists of state endangered and threatened species are those who count on this type of habitat.

Always on the lookout for good habitat, we stopped a few times to check for birdage, particularly the grassland species Ivan needs for his year list. Then we came upon a brown plank sign labeling the entrance to the South Branch Wildlife Management Area. This was a new one for both of us, and if the fields we'd just past were any indication of the quality of its habitat, we needed to check it out.

A paved road leads off the road but is blocked by a padlocked gate fifty yards or so in. We parked the car nearby and walked around the gate posts to explore further up the road, which appeared to end at a crest in the hill. To the left was a broad field of assorted grasses and wildflowers, while the clearing to the right was edged by a thick stand of trees. From the music we were hearing, we could tell this was prime territory. Why hadn't we heard about this spot before?

Walking along, we were able to spot most of the usual suspect birds, as well as some of their brighter cousins. Indigo bunting, yellow warbler and goldfinch were regular sights, as were both Baltimore and orchard orioles. The orchards, in particular, were unusually plentiful; we must have seen three or four juvenile males before finding an adult.

We also scared up a fox who'd been obscured by the tall grass. Not wanting to deal with us, he trotted down the road and found refuge in the woods. He might have been the one who'd left the scat I'd noticed at spots on the pavement; we didn't see any deer. Or, perhaps, it might have been the byproduct of whoever left the claw marks I thought I saw in some mud.

In any case, the road kept going once we reached the rise, terminating at an old prefab metal building. Even though the property appeared to stretch far beyond, we chose not to do any bushwacking. We've had more than our share of post-trip tick discoveries so far this season, and we were both relieved to be birding somewhere productive that didn't require us to walk through brush. There was no need, anyway: a connecting road led across the property and was just calling out to us. How could we resist the invitation?

Like the Negri Nepote Grasslands we visited last year, this field hosts a long row of 300kv transmission lines that announce themselves with a buzzy hum as you approach. Also like last year's experience, a red tail hawk was perched about midway up one of the transmission towers, occasionally screaming to warn us away. This one, though, wasn't nesting and didn't appear to have young nearby at all. He seemed to be preening or airing out one of his wings, creating a somewhat cloaklike shape on one side. At first we wondered if he might be injured, but after taking looks from several perspectives as we walked further down the trail, we decided he was fine. Maybe a little wet from the previous night's rain, but fine, nonetheless.

The path continued down a short, gentle incline to a wooded area complete with a tiny brook, and then back up to another field. Finding nothing really different in terms of habitat or birds, we decided to turn back and continue on our road trip travels. Even though we hadn't found Ivan's target birds there, we'd seen enough to know that South Branch WMA was a definite option for future exploration.

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